Believe it or not, there are some people who’d take a macabre museum or a cemetery tour over a sun lounger by the pool any day. These people are dark tourists: travellers who choose to spend their holidays visiting sites connected to death or tragedy.
I’m one of them, and our numbers are growing fast, if Netflix’s new documentary series, Dark Tourist, is anything to go by. A typical Dark Tourist episode sees journalist David Farrier travel to an abandoned nuclear site and the so-called 'haunted forest' in Japan, where many people die by suicide. It's where YouTuber Logan Paul filmed a dead body in the forest last year, causing worldwide outrage.
Put your thoughts of Logan Paul aside, though. Most actual dark tourists are more respectful, save the odd selfie-taker at the 9/11 memorial, or the woman in hot pants at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp; like me, these people travel to bring history alive and to honour victims who, in different circumstances, could have been any one of us.
You don’t need to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to get that perspective but you can’t fully understand its scale from a book or video, which explains why so many school groups visit. The piles of tangled glasses, shoes and suitcases, all taken from victims of the Nazis, rightly upset me. Likewise, Amanda Williams, blogger at A Dangerous Business, was moved by a trip to the Killing Fields in Cambodia where over a million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. "I didn’t learn much about it in school, and yet the cruelty there was equally as shocking as Auschwitz-Birkenau."
Hayley Chow, a London-based communications officer, got into dark tourism on a battlefield tour of the Somme, France: "I got off the coach and an overwhelming feeling of sadness just came over me, but I found that incredibly peaceful for some reason," she says. "I could have spent hours there, just in my own deep thoughts and imagining what it must have been like."
Despite death being a taboo topic for most British people, she’s gradually convinced friends to travel with her: "Surprisingly a lot of my friends are on the same wavelength – but they’re just more discreet about it than me."
These people travel to bring history alive and to honour victims who, in different circumstances, could have been any one of us.
Blogger Sophie Collard, of Travel Darkly, finds dark tourism can be a great ice-breaker: "People look at you like you’re weird, but they always, without fail, tell a story about a dark place they’ve visited. A woman who used to work on cruise ships told me each ship has a morgue on board."
Cemeteries are perhaps the most mainstream dark tourism attraction, especially if they feature celebrity tombstones or "Instagram-friendly" (gross) gothic architecture. Just look at the number of tours through Hollywood Forever, in Los Angeles, or London’s Highgate Cemetery, a favourite of Hayley Chow, which had 85,000 visitors in 2016.
Kaitlin Blyth, a project manager from London, headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, "just because Oscar Wilde is buried there. My mum also made me take a photo of Jim Morrison’s grave. I also went to St. Louis No 1, in New Orleans, having read it was a famous 'alternative' tourist place with a Voodoo priestess. You learn about the history of New Orleans, and the burial process, which is super interesting."
She found the pop culture references continued here, too: "Nicolas Cage has a plot which looks like a pyramid, ready for when he dies." At the other end of the spectrum, I found the African Burial Ground in New York City very emotional. Hidden in plain sight in downtown Manhattan, it pays tribute to free and enslaved Africans who were excluded from other cemeteries. Sophie Collard recommends the equally hidden Cross Bones Graveyard, near London Bridge.
In episode one of Dark Tourist, David Farrier visits Medellín, the Colombian city controlled by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Narco tourism (visiting sites connected to the drugs trade) isn’t something I’ve tried, and I feel uncomfortable about the way drugs are glorified – 'narco fantasy' tours in Medellín sound all kinds of disrespectful to the families of Escobar’s victims.
Speaking to these dark tourists, it’s clear we all have our personal limits, but everyone agrees it’s important to think about why you want to visit a specific place. For Becki Enright, blogger at Borders of Adventure, you need to have the right motivation: "It's not about going somewhere because I crave being scared, or find it entertaining (which 99% of the time it really is not) – that's where I feel this kind of tourism has taken a wrong turn."
Her most eye-opening trip was to North Korea, where tourists must travel with registered guides. Due to the country’s strict dictatorship, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against visiting. Despite this, 4,000-5,000 Westerners arrive each year.
"In North Korea, what stands out most is the consistent lying and exaggeration by the guides, who literally have no choice but to say it; you know that nothing is true. You have no access to local people, and you feel utterly powerless to help them," says Becki. "I hope that, by locals seeing us in the distance, they realised Westerners aren’t there to harm them, and that one day we can close this tragic gap."
We’re lucky to live in a democracy with freedom of speech and human rights, and Becki and I agree that being an ethical dark tourist – without exploiting locals or disrespecting victims – stops us taking anything for granted. Don’t save us a spot by the sun loungers.